ENSURING SAFETY OF WOMEN IN FUEL QUEUES

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The clock was ticking closer to midnight and the queue at fuel station near Orugodawatta intersection still spanned over two kilometres. Nalini is still about 250 metres away from the fuel station. She hesitantly looks ahead and then looks at the long line behind her. She pushes her scooter few more feet ahead and again the queue stops moving. Taking a small water bottle out from her pouch she takes few sips – enough to keep her from being dehydrated.

“I have been two times unlucky. This is the third day I joined the fuel queue. I waited till about 11.30 p.m. and then left. Once again here I am…in the queue…closer to midnight. I don’t think I’ll have energy for another day after waiting in the queue for more than 12 hours now. Part of me wants to wait longer since I can now see the petrol shed and there are only 50 bikes ahead of me. Yet, the other part warns me to return home as it is already closer to midnight and my life is worth than five litres of petrol (Rs 2,300) and my children want their mother,” she laments.

Nalini appeared extremely worn-out and was panting heavily as she spoke.

“I came here around 10.30 a.m. after quickly preparing lunch for my kids and husband. I haven’t eaten anything since and now trembling as I am extremely hungry. I kept this small water bottle with me and keep sipping it slowly for hours now. Am scared to eat or even drink lots of water even though I feel dehydrated. I am scared that I will be in uneasy situation if my tummy is filled with food or liquids. On one hand, there are no washrooms and on the other hand, I don’t want to lose my spot in the queue,” she added.

Nalini said even though men in the queue, especially other bike riders and three-wheeler drivers, are extremely helpful and may even help securing her spot in the queue, she is hesitant to take a chance.

“People are frustrated and even a minute matter can trigger them into a clash. There are reports about such clashes taking place at fuel queues around the country and I’m scared I might get caught in the melee. Even though I’m not alone in the queue, I’m scared that someone will approach me and try to steal my bike. I’m scared that I’d be dragged into a three-wheeler or some other vehicle and molested. You never know…” she added.

Her husband who is working irregular shifts both day and night finds it difficult to accompany her in fuel queues.

Nalini was not the only woman who stays for hours in fuel queues that stretches over few kilometres.

Kusum, mother of four had been waiting in the queue for more than eight hours leaving her four children home. Her husband is waiting in another fuel queue in his three-wheeler which he uses to deliver laundered clothes. Their only income is delivering clothes from the laundry by three-wheeler.

“While we both wait in queues my children are at home all by themselves.
I am scared about their safety than my own. Today, even an old woman is not safe on the road and how can I think my children are safe without one of us near them,” she added.

Samadhi, an apparel worker has spent her entire Sunday- the only off day she has per week- in fuel queue.

“I have to refuel my scooter as I take my children to school and classes on it and go to work directly. For the past few months, my only non-working day is dedicated to waiting in fuel queues. This means, my having to spend more hours in the night and losing sleep to do the laundry and other chores that I used to do on a Sunday,” she said.

This is tiring physically and mentally as you keep worrying about all the ‘if’s, she adds.

“If I get fuel before it is too late in the night. What if I am unable to fill the fuel tank today? Will I be in trouble if I drink too much water and where should I go if I need to pass urine? Will I be safe if I stay past 9.00 p.m.? Are there other women in front of me or behind me in the queue… and the list may go on,” Samadhi said. 

Over 10 individuals have died while waiting in fuel queues so far and over 100 arrested for unruly behaviour in the country. While, all waiting in fuel queues are tired, frustrated and disappointed over uncertain fuel supplies, women in queues have other additional burdens to worry at.

By Gagani